Lesley Garrett: I am approaching my first panto in the same way as I approach opera

Ahead of her first ever pantomime starring as the Fairy Godmother later this month, we caught up with Lesley Garrett

Lesley Garrett
Lesley Garrett
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Over the last 40 years, Lesley Garrett has built a professional career as one of Britain's most established opera singers. She has always retained an interest in other forms of music and theatre however, which is reflected by a varied CV spanning film, television and broadcasting. Lesley told us a little about how she initially became involved with theatre work and the challenges of being in her first ever pantomime production this winter.

Having initially made your name as an opera singer, how did you come to be involved with theatre work?

It all came about because of Michael Ball – I had a TV series in the early 2000s and the principle was to get people who didn't sing opera to come and try it, to prove that anyone can. Michael and I sang on the show together and became good friends. When I heard that Andrew Lloyd Webber was bringing The Sound of Music to the Palladium in 2006 I rang Michael and said do you think Andrew would be prepared to listen to me audition for the role of Mother Abbess. Michael rang me back and said "no you don't need to audition, you can just have the role". It was the best audition I ever did!

Had you performed in musicals and panto as a child?

I did absolutely everything as a kid – my school was extraordinary in that regard, we did so many different types of productions. I think the reason I have had such an eclectic career is because as a child I sang everything and have simply continued to do that.

What excites you about panto?

The great thing about pantomime is that actors are encouraged to bring their own personality to the stage. We have the wonderful Pete Firman in Cinderella for example, who is bringing his specific skills as a magician to the role. You are allowed to be both yourself as well as your character and I find that very creative.

I do not think one genre of music or form of theatre should be seen as superior to another so I am approaching this project in the same way as I approach opera. When I was researching the character of the fairy godmother, I discovered people like Helena Bonham Carter and Whitney Houston have previously played the role. There is every reason for someone like myself to do this.

Samantha Womack, Lesley Garrett, Pete Firman and Melody Thornton
Samantha Womack, Lesley Garrett, Pete Firman and Melody Thornton in Cinderella

Pantos are usually the first time that families visit the theatre together, especially those with younger children. Is that something that you are conscious of?

It is one of the main reasons I am doing this – we have to nurture the young. There is so much competition for their attention from every form of modern device, which is a great challenge to traditional theatre. I am not at all saying that things were better the way they were before, we need to always be moving forward and every challenge that comes to theatre has to be seen as an opportunity to improve. It is a magical moment when a child first encounters drama, music and entertainment on stage. It is so precious and we must never lose that.

So are you hoping children are inspired to become involved in these types of productions?

Definitely. I love the tradition of children coming up onto the stage and taking part in a pantomime, you just don't get that in opera. You can see on their faces the little germ of an idea or an experience or an empathy. You can see the kids who feel at home on a stage and then you can see the ones who want to get off! It is such a privilege to be there at the beginning of a child's theatrical experience.